Artists often operate in a world of their own making. It is the rest of us who look to their art as a way to understand or transcend the frequently bleak big picture we can’t so easily escape. On a day when earthquakes and tsunami waves were killing thousands in Japan, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet offered a new piece by Nicolo Fonte at the Lensic that was as transcendent as a prayer.
Where We Left Off is the seventh piece commissioned by ASFB from Fonte, clearly one of the favorite choreographers of the company’s directors. The piece is not strikingly original in its elements, but beauty, in this case, is its own reward. From the two excerpts of piano music by Philip Glass ( Mad Rush and Metamorphosis No. 2) to the Twyla Tharpian white-pajama costuming by Mark Zappone to the gorgeous lighting by Seah Johnson, the piece offered soft-edged lyricism and painterly imagery, something that Aspen Santa Fe has ventured away from recently but is highly welcome.
For every audience member who has ever grumbled about Aspen Santa Fe not really being a ballet company (no toe shoes, no corps de ballet, no Giselle), let it be said, once and for all, who cares? When a choreographer like Fonte has 10 beautifully trained, passionate dancers at his disposal, and he showcases their abilities in a movement language that interests him, that is worth seeing no matter what genre is being explored. Yes, Fonte uses the kind of swirling, expressive, momentum-based movement that has often been associated with great modern-dance choreography, but so does Christopher Wheeldon, one of the brightest lights in international ballet-making these days. Artists have a mandate to explore the fusion of forms and the expansion of existing vocabularies, unless we want ballet to become some kind of dancing museum.
One of the things that separates Aspen Santa Fe Ballet from many other companies is the sense of almost tribal egalitarianism on display — everyone is a soloist. Big group pieces are another moderndance staple, but when extended solos and duets are de-emphasized, and the almost anonymous power of the group has an opportunity to coalesce into a shimmering flow of overlapping images, as it does in Fonte’s creation, the nature of the dance itself becomes more evident than it might in a piece that is broken into a more hierarchical structure. Often mesmerizing, like the music of Glass, Where We Left Off puts aside edgy, asymmetrical partnering for the most part, leaves aside irony and physical gamesmanship and explores grace — in terms of movement as well as the spiritual connotation. This is a dance of wistfulness, an elegy perhaps, but in the dying light, the Aspen Santa Fe dancers express humanity as a higher calling.
Stamping Ground, a Jirˇ í Kylián dance choreographed for the Nederlands Dans Theater in 1983 and newly acquired by ASFB, is a foil to the highly technical, densely choreographed pieces the company has offered in recent concerts. In some ways, its jokey, body-slapping simplicity comes across as a mash-up of Pilobolus, Paul Taylor, and Cirque du Soleil — certainly not intended to be deep or emotional. Just as well. The way dancer Emily Proctor took to the gyrations and gymnastic vaudeville of the piece on March 11, along with the five other dancers (there were alternating casts), made up for the piece’s clowning silliness with sheer delight. The percussion score by Carlos Chávez came as a relief after the first part of the dance: a series of solos with comic overlap took place in silence except for the stamping of the dancers’ feet on the ground and the sound of dancers slapping their own bodies. Music, please.
Uneven, an ASFB-commissioned work by Cayetano Soto that the company has been touring around the country since its premiere in Aspen last July (and performance in Santa Fe shortly after), continues to be a showcase for some of the more risky-looking partnering and thrilling physical feats for everyone in the company. If seeing dancers turn on their knees is difficult for you to watch, this is not the dance for you. However, Katherine Bolaños, a veteran company member, ate up the stage in the work. Her performance, in addition to that of Katie Dehler and Samantha Klanac, showed how capable these dancers are of adapting to the edgier newfangled choreography now coming out of Europe (although William Forsythe began contorting dancers this way more than 20 years ago). William Cannon and Joseph Watson, in a wildly athletic duet, offered probably the most exciting 30 seconds onstage at the Lensic all year. On the other hand, Sam Chittenden, with his princely good looks, had a soft touch in his approach to both partnering and solo work. It’s as if he found all the thrashing distasteful and preferred to hold his partners with tenderness — damn the choreography.
Seia Rassenti in Jiˇrí Kylían’s Stamping Ground; top, Sam Chittenden and Katie Dehler in Uneven by Cayetano Soto; photos Rosalie O’Connor